Netanyahu to meet Putin in Moscow five days before elections

Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria, US Golan declaration likely to dominate ‘brief’ discussion between PM and Russian leader, their second in five weeks

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2019. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 27, 2019. (MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week, his office announced on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not provide further details about the meeting, which is set to take place Thursday in the Kremlin — five days before Israel’s Knesset elections.

Russia confirmed the meeting.

“An agreement has been reached that on April 4 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will fly to Moscow for a brief working visit. On April 4 such brief working talks will be held and the sides will synchronize their watches,” according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Putin and Netanyahu spoke on the phone on Monday and discussed “regional issues,” the PMO said that day, without elaborating.

Netanyahu has boasted of his close personal ties to world leaders, including Putin, during the current election campaign, arguing that his diplomatic skills are unrivaled.

The last meeting of the two leaders took place in late February in the Russian capital, and marked the first significant encounter between the two since a major spat developed over a downed Russian spy plane in September. Even though the plane was shot down by Syrian air defense while aiming at an Israeli jet that was targeting an alleged Iranian installation, Moscow blamed Israel, saying the IAF used the Russian aircraft as cover and did not give the Russians proper warning of its planned strike in Syria.

Israel denies both charges.

At the time, Netanyahu stressed Israel’s absolute commitment to continue to act to thwart Iran’s efforts to military entrench itself in Syria. Tehran and Damascus are close allies of Moscow.

“The greatest threat to stability and security in the region comes from Iran and its proxies,” Netanyahu told Putin in February 27. “We are determined to continue our aggressive activity against Iran, which calls for our destruction, and against its attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria.”

Syria is likely to dominate Thursday’s talks as well, including the matter of the US administration’s recognition last week of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Moscow condemned the decision, reiterating that it considers the territory part of Syria.

Netanyahu had credited his close ties with Putin for the success of a system allowing Israel to carry out strikes in Syria without becoming entangled with Russia, which is allied with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, but those ties reportedly took a hit in the wake of the spy plane incident.

After the February meeting, a minor disagreement over Moscow’s offer to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ensued. The Russian embassy in Tel Aviv said that the issue had been raised during the trip, but an Israeli official later denied this.

Quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the embassy’s statement said that “during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow, the situation in the Israeli-Palestinian settlement was discussed. We reaffirmed our position on Russia’s interest in overcoming the deadlock in this matter as soon as possible.

“Our proposal to host leaders of Israel and Palestine remains relevant. We believe that it would be at least a very important step in restoring confidence. Without this, it is impossible to count on further progress in the Israeli-Palestinian settlement,” it  said.

But in response, a senior Israeli diplomatic official told Hebrew media that “the issue was never discussed.”

During the public part of the February meeting, Putin welcomed his Israeli guest, but did not specifically mention Iran or Syria in his remarks. “It is very important that we continue to cooperate. Russia was a supporter of the establishment of Israel. We are happy to talk about the situation in the region and the security issue,” he said.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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